In the last few weeks several seemingly unrelated events have occurred that may impact Georgian political life. First, it became known that the Georgian government is pursuing some kind of energy relationship with Russia. This has, predictably, led to outraged statements from the opposition United National Movement (UNM), raising concerns about this government becoming too cozy with Moscow. Equally predictably, the government has defended this move on the grounds that Georgia needs to diversify its energy sources. Both opinions should be measured and considered by the Georgian people.
Second, President Margvelashvili announced that Pikria Chikhradze, a veteran Georgian political figure who has served several terms in parliament, would become his new political advisor. This appointment is significant because it further demonstrates that the President is making his office an institutional check on a government that, at least for now, continues to be dominated by the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition. Chikhradze, a longtime member of the New Rights Party, is not part of the GD coalition, so her appointment reinforces Margvelashvili’s independence from the GD coalition on whose ticket he was elected President in 2013.
Third, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) released the first half of another of their frequent public opinion polls. The first half of the poll focused more in issues rather than politicians and political parties. As with most good public opinion research in Georgia, regardless of who is in power, this poll revealed a Georgian population that is concerned about economic conditions and does not have great confidence in their government. Interestingly, this poll also provided evidence that among some Georgians, particularly in Tbilisi, issues involving the environment, infrastructure and the like are becoming increasingly significant.
These events are illustrative of broader trends in Georgian politics that could either lead to a stronger more pluralist democratic system, or could simply be the road back to the cycle of regime consolidation and collapse that has characterized Georgian politics for nearly a quarter century. One way to interpret these three developments, all of which are illustrative of broader trends in Georgian political life rather than standalone incidents, is that they all demonstrate the growing weakness of the GD coalition. According to this interpretation, the discussions between with Moscow about possible energy deals is a revelation of the GD’s true orientation towards Russia. President Margvelashvili’s deepening independence from the GD, as symbolized by his latest choice of his advisors, is occurring because even the President wants to be independent of the coalition that is responsible for his election. The NDI poll confirms this interpretation because is is further evidence that the GD has not ben able t solve Georgia’s enduring problems of governance and economy and confronting an increasingly dissatisfied electorate.
That interpretation is reasonable and certainly consistent with recent Georgian precedents. There are, however, reasons to think that interpretation may also be a bit dated and that these developments may be harbingers of a different kind of evolution of Georgian political life.
The Georgian government’s decision to engage in discussions about energy with Russia may lead to an agreement of some kind, or the talks may end quickly. Significantly, for the Georgian people it draws another line between the government and the UNM opposition. Those who believe any contact at all with Russia is a mistake, can see that the GD does not represent that view, while those who believe in a need to strike a balance between resistance to Russian aggression and some efforts to build relationships with a powerful neighbor, will likely be more drawn to the GD. The GD will undoubtedly lose some support because of this action, but the question of whether the UNM will use this to build support around a cohesive vision or simply to stoke the rhetoric of the GD being controlled by Moscow remains unanswered. The former would contribute a lot more to possible pluralism, while the latter would likely be another failed effort to delegitimize the GD government by linking it to Moscow.
Similarly, when President Margvelashvili first got elected observers could be excused for thinking “handpicked by Bidzina Ivanishvili” was part of his official title, because the western media almost never wrote about him without that description. The President’s success in carving out an institutionally distinct office and independent voice for himself is one of the most significant, and positive, developments in the last few years in Georgia. This is undoubtedly extremely frustrating for the GD, as that party believes, rightly, that Margvelashvili could not have been elected without them. However, the GD also began attacking Margvelashvili almost before the inauguration was over. Regardless of the provenance of the tension between Margvelashvili and the GD government, his success is creating an independent political institution that has not given in to a simple government-opposition framework is a valuable contribution to Georgian political life. The appointment of Chikhradze strengthens this independence and demonstrates that the President is committed to building his own political base.
Over the last several years, NDI polls have become a significant part of the Georgian political environment, so this recent poll cannot be described as a discrete political event or development. The poll itself is not going to dramatically change anything in Georgia, but the seeds of a more pluralist system can be found in that poll as well. For example, the finding that for residents of Tbilisi the three most important local issues are pollution, roads and traffic, mentioned by43%, 31% and 27% of respondents, suggests that voters are thinking about local government in a more holistic way. Although this data might have been more useful if options to identify job creation or something like that as major problems had been given to the respondents as well, it still suggests an opening for political parties and politicians to focus on local issues and problems rather than broader, more generic, critiques of the government.
Since independence, Georgian democracy, whether strong or weak, has been based on an accountability paradigm. The central issue in every election has been the performance of the incumbent government; the political opposition has sought to either criticize or discredit the government; and political debate has largely been about who is best at achieving an agreed upon set of goals rather than about what those goals should be. This form of democracy is better and often freer than many non-democratic from of government, but it is not deep or full democracy.
Georgia has not yet succeeded in moving towards a more pluralist framework for democracy. In many respects it has never really tried. Incumbent governments have sought to vilify all opposition as unpatriotic or pro-Russia while opposition forces have, in turn, consistently called not for a richer policy discussion, or even specific programs, but the ouster of the incumbent government. Taken together, these three recent political developments suggest that Georgia could be changing in this regard.
A debate about the wisdom of doing energy related business with Russia that does not quickly devolve into the opposition calling the government pro-Russia and the other side responding by reminding voters of what the opposition did when it was in power would be a major step in this direction. President Margvelashvili has called for a special government session to discuss this. The tenor of that session will reveal quite a bit about how close Georgia is to pluralism. Similarly, the ability of political parties to craft competing solutions to problems of the environment, roads, infrastructure and the like that, at least on the local level, concern people will also be a measure of this.
This may be pluralism’s moment in Georgia because bigger picture politics have created an opening. The inability, by design or not, of the GD to consolidate strong one party rule in the manner of the UNM and the Citizen’s Union of Georgia (CUG) before them, combined with the unlikelihood that the UNM can reenergize the Georgia people and again become the majority party may create an additional push factor towards a more pluralist system, and will at least ensure that the political space for pluralism to develop will continue to exist for a few years.
There are, of course, other possible outcomes beyond either reconsolidating of one party dominance by one or another political block and genuine pluralism. Georgia could be moving to a kind of weak state semi-democracy with electoral competition, but not a vision or issue based pluralism. Similarly, broader ideological schemas, such as orientation towards the west, conservative religious values and liberalism could solidify their position in center stage of Georgian political debate thus pushing out the possibility of an interest or vision based politics emerging.
Interpreting a few relatively quotidian events as an early sign of a significant shift in Georgia’s political gestalt would be a triumph of optimism over analysis. Nonetheless, the new NDI poll, the President’s new political advisor and a divisive policy issue that might just be debated on its substance, are reasons to have hope that Georgia is gradually moving towards pluralism.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.